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Long Live Bell Labs

The world's greatest engine of innovation still hums along, long after the car was taken off the road

2 min read

It didn't take long for Wikipedia's Bell Labs entry to be updated to include a seventh Nobel Prize for the storied organization.

1937 Clinton J. Davisson (the wave nature of matter)
1956 John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley (transistors)
1977 Philip W. Anderson (electronic structure of glass)
1978 Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson (cosmic microwave background radiation)
1997 Steven Chu (cooling and trapping atoms)
1998 Horst Stormer, Robert Laughlin, and Daniel Tsui (fractional quantum Hall effect)
2009 Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith (CCD)

The first six are included in a memorable and entertaining video that the PR department at Lucent Technologies produced during the dot-com bubble, when Lucent and the rest of the telecommunications world was riding high. (It didn't take long for Lucent to be brought down low by the corresponding bust, and right around the time the next bubble was at its height, it was bought by Alcatel.)

The digital camera, among many other innovations, couldn't have happened without CCD (though a lot of them use CMOS these days). The seminal, if not the first, digital camera was based around Kodak's 1986 KAF-1300 Image Sensor, which made Spectrum's list of 25 Microchips That Shook the World."

Kodak's DCS 100 cost about $13 000 (in 1986 dollars), but digital cameras are so cheap and ubiquitious these days that this month's Spectrum do-it-yourself project, a Google Street Maps-like camera array, can use eight of them (and set you back a mere $200 for all of them).

As the 2009 prize shows, Bell Labs' innovations have long outlived the original AT&T and Lucent, an idea that was driven home by technology historian Michael Riordan in a July 2005 Spectrum feature, "The End of AT&T: Ma Bell may be gone, but its innovations are everywhere."

Spectrum's coverage of Bell Labs is too sprawling to offer in its totality, but the above list of Bell Labs' Nobel Prizes wouldn't be complete without the one that got away, memorably described in another Riordan feature, "How Bell Labs Missed the Microchip."

A trip down this particular memory lane also wouldn't be complete without at least one reflection from one-time Bell Labs executive and all-time Spectrum columnist, Bob Lucky: "When Giants Walked the Earth."

Congratulations, Willard Boyle and George Smith. And thank you, Bell Labs. May we somehow, somewhere, someday see another such engine of innovation.

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